Yes it can—but it won’t do it much good. The reason is that Google’s servers aren’t fit for solving the Bitcoin mining problem in the same way that ASICs are. For reference, if Google harnesses all of its servers for the sole purpose of mining Bitcoin (and abandons all other business operations), it will account for a very small percent (less than 0.001%) of the total mining power the Bitcoin network currently has.
In the meantime, the basin’s miners are at full steam ahead. Salcido says he’ll have 42 megawatts running by the end of the year and 150 megawatts by 2020. Carlson says his next step after his current build-out of 60 megawatts will be “in the hundreds” of megawatts. Over the next five years, his company plans to raise $5 billion in capital to build 2,000 megawatts—two gigawatts—of additional mining capacity. But that won’t all be in the basin, he says. Carlson says he and others will soon be scaling up so rapidly that, for farsighted miners, the Mid-Columbia Basin effectively is already maxed out, in part because the counties simply can’t build out power lines and infrastructure fast enough. “So we have to go site hunting across the US & Canada,” Carlson told me in a text. “I’m on my way to Quebec on Monday.” As in oil or gold, prospectors never stop—they just move on.
While heat is definitely an issue for the mining farm in Ordos, the electricity there is dirt cheap, only 4 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, with government subsidies. That’s about one-fifth of the average price in the United Kingdom. The only other costs for the facility are the rigs themselves and the salary of the few dozen staff that keeps them operational.
Mining a block is difficult because the SHA-256 hash of a block's header must be lower than or equal to the target in order for the block to be accepted by the network. This problem can be simplified for explanation purposes: The hash of a block must start with a certain number of zeros. The probability of calculating a hash that starts with many zeros is very low, therefore many attempts must be made. In order to generate a new hash each round, a nonce is incremented. See Proof of work for more information.
Cryptojacking and legitimate mining, however, are sensitive to cryptocurrency prices, which have declined sharply since their highs in late 2017 and early 2018. According to a McAfee September 2018 threats report, cryptojacking instances “remain very active,” but a decline in the value of cryptocurrencies could lead to a plunge in coin mining malware, just as fast as it emerged.
The code that makes bitcoin mining possible is completely open-source, and developed by volunteers. But the force that really makes the entire machine go is pure capitalistic competition. Every miner right now is racing to solve the same block simultaneously, but only the winner will get the prize. In a sense, everybody else was just burning electricity. Yet their presence in the network is critical.
In exchange for securing the network, and as the “lottery price” that serves as an incentive for burning this energy, each new block includes a special transaction. It’s this transaction that awards the miner with new bitcoins, which is how bitcoins first come into circulation. At Bitcoin’s launch, each new block awarded the miner with 50 bitcoins, and this amount halves every four years: Currently each block includes 12.5 new bitcoins. Additionally, miners get to keep any mining fees that were attached to the transactions they included in their blocks.
Though it is tempting to believe the media's spin that Satoshi Nakamoto is a lone, quixotic genius who created Bitcoin out of thin air, such innovations do not happen in a vacuum. All major scientific discoveries, no matter how original-seeming, were built on previously existing research. There are precursors to Bitcoin: Adam Back’s Hashcash, invented in 1997, and subsequently Wei Dai’s b-money, Nick Szabo’s bit-gold and Hal Finney’s Reusable Proof of Work. The Bitcoin white paper itself cites Hashcash and b-money, as well as various other works spanning several research fields.
Bitcoin Core is the “official” Bitcoin client and wallet, though isn’t used by many due to slow speeds and a lack of features. Bitcoin Core, however, is a full node, meaning it helps verify and transmit other Bitcoin transactions across the network and stores a copy of the entire blockchain. This offers better privacy since Core doesn’t have to rely on data from external servers or other peers on the network. Bitcoin Core routed through Tor is considered one of the best ways to use Bitcoin privately.
Granted, all that real-worlding and road-hitting is a little hard to visualize just now. The winter storms that have turned the Cascade Mountains a dazzling white have also turned the construction site into a reddish quagmire that drags at workers and equipment. There have also been permitting snafus, delayed utility hookups, and a lawsuit, recently settled, by impatient investors. But Carlson seems unperturbed. “They are actually making it work,” he told me earlier, referring to the mud-caked workers. “In a normal project, they might just say, ‘Let’s just wait till spring,’” Carlson adds. “But in bitcoin and blockchain, there is no stopping.” Indeed, demand for hosting services in the basin is so high that a desperate miner offered Carlson a Lamborghini if Carlson would bump him to the head of the pod waiting list. “I didn’t take the offer,” Carlson assures me. “And I like Lamborghinis!”
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To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a so-called proof-of-work (PoW). The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash. The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.
Still, even supporters acknowledge that that glorious future is going to use a lot of electricity. It’s true that many of the more alarming claims—for example, that by 2020, bitcoin mining will consume “as much electricity as the entire world does today,” as the environmental website Grist recently suggested—are ridiculous: Even if the current bitcoin load grew a hundredfold, it would still represent less than 2 percent of total global power consumption. (And for comparison, even the high-end estimates of bitcoin’s total current power consumption are still less than 6 percent of the power consumed by the world’s banking sector.) But the fact remains that bitcoin takes an astonishing amount of power. By one estimate, the power now needed to mine a single coin would run the average household for 10 days.
To form a distributed timestamp server as a peer-to-peer network, bitcoin uses a proof-of-work system. This work is often called bitcoin mining. The signature is discovered rather than provided by knowledge. This process is energy intensive. Electricity can consume more than 90% of operating costs for miners. A data center in China, planned mostly for bitcoin mining, is expected to require up to 135 megawatts of power.
If fewer people begin to accept Bitcoin as a currency, these digital units may lose value and could become worthless. There is already plenty of competition, and though Bitcoin has a huge lead over the other 100-odd digital currencies that have sprung up, thanks to its brand recognition and venture capital money, a technological break-through in the form of a better virtual coin is always a threat.
Each time you request blockchain data from a wallet, the server may be able to view your IP address and connect this to the address data requested. Each wallet handles data requests differently. If privacy is important to you, use a wallet that downloads the whole blockchain like Bitcoin Core or Armory. Tor can be used with other wallets to shield your IP address, but this doesn’t prevent a server from tying a group of addresses to one identity. For more information, check out the Open Bitcoin Privacy Project for wallet rankings based on privacy.
As you can imagine, since mining is based on a form of guessing, for each block, a different miner will guess the number and be granted the right to update the blockchain. Of course, the miners with more computing power will succeed more often, but due to the law of statistical probability, it’s highly unlikely that the same miner will succeed every time.
To add a new block to the chain, a miner has to finish what’s called a cryptographic proof-of-work problem. Such problems are impossible to solve without applying a ton of brute computing force, so if you have a solution in hand, it’s proof that you’ve done a certain quantity of computational work. The computational problem is different for every block in the chain, and it involves a particular kind of algorithm called a hash function.
The counterargument is that the blockchain economy is still in its infancy. The “monetized code” that underlies the blockchain concept can be written to carry any sort of information securely, and to administer virtually any kind of transaction, contractual arrangement or other data-driven relationship between humans and their proliferating machines. In the future, supporters say, banks and other large institutions and even governments will run internal blockchains. Consumer product companies and tech companies will use blockchain to manage the “internet of things.” Within this ecosystem, we’ll see a range of cryptos playing different roles, with bitcoin perhaps serving as an investment, while more nimble cryptos can carry out everyday transactions. And the reality is, whatever its flaws, bitcoin’s success and fame thus far makes the whole crypto phenomenon harder to dislodge with every trading cycle.
Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009. Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services. Research produced by the University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.